The British class divide

Why speech still divides the British

The class system in Britain is dead or is it, really? Following the recent changes made to the welfare system in Britain by the Conservative government [let us not talk about the LibDems], class seems to suddenly be in the news again.

People seem to suggest that class doesn't really exist and that there's no class war going on. The cuts aren't meant to hurt the working-classes but the people who are unwilling to contribute to society. Given all the hoopla - see I'm not getting involved on either side of that debate, - I thought it would be interesting to look at what class is and how one identifies it.

Researchers and writers like Kate Fox and Ferdinand Mount demonstrate how very prevalent the class system still is in the UK. Be it by dress, speech, interests and choices in home décor the different classes do still make different choices. This allows an observant traveller or social anthropology enthusiast to make a very educated guess about a person's class, and thus, their attitudes and thinking on a large number of issues. This might seem wrong, and at times it can feel like we are being pigeon-holed, but there's no getting away from the fact that we are to a large extent shaped by our parents and our communities. Class is one aspect of this demographic reality.

For this reason, this hub is going to talk about what I think is one of the most important markers of class, speech. I shall tackle other markers in later hubs.

I'm not writing this hub to make people think that I have an inferiority or even a superiority complex. I am, however, deeply interested in how, given the level of technology, mass media and information, the classes still think, speak and behave differently. The older I grow, the more class and peoples positions within it help me understand them better. It allows me to know when my behaviour is definitely being seen as pushy or obtrusive, although only because it is my class background talking. Similarly, my approach to money and life in general is a distinct result of my background and thus, class. Race and skin colour are not as divisive as class, or so I feel sometimes. It is easier for a British-Asian person like myself to mix and move with White-British people of the same class than it is for me to understand the choices of other British-Asian people from a different class. I and they speak a different language, we have different aspirations and make alternate choices in terms of how we live.

The list for this hub was taken from Kate Fox. But I must admit that once I read her work, that I did a lot of what she did - I made sure I eavesdropped on conversations while on the bus [I like in Manchester and you do hear all kinds of things on the bus], the canteen at university and coffee shops and she's spot on. I can't compete with her excellent research :)

The Seven Deadly Sins taken from Kate Fox's book, Watching the English. (Hodder and Stoughton Ltd: London, 2004).

1. Pardon

This word is hated by the upper and upper-middle classes. Lower class suburbs are even known as 'Pardonia'. A good class-test when talking to an English person it to deliberately say something too quietly for them to hear you properly. A lower-middle or middle-middle will say 'Pardon?'; while an upper-middle will say 'Sorry?' or perhaps, 'Sorry - what?' or even 'What - sorry?'; but an upper-class or working-class person will both say 'What?'. The working-class person may drop the 't' - 'Wha?' but this is the only difference. Some upper-working-class people with middle-class aspirations might say 'Pardon', in an attempt to sound 'posh'.

2. Toilet

The correct upper-middle/upper term is 'loo' or 'lavatory'. 'Bog' is occasionally acceptable, but only if it is said with an obviously ironic-jocular manner. The working-class, lower-middles and middle-middles all say 'toilet'. Middle-middles and lower-middles with aspirations might say 'gents', 'ladies', 'bathroom', 'powder room', 'facilities', and 'convenience.'

3. Serviette

A 'serviette' is what the inhabitants of Pardonia call a napkin. Upper-middle and upper-class mothers will retrain their children to use the word 'napkin' if they've been taught the word 'serviette' by their lower-class nannies or child-minders.

4. Dinner

If you use the word 'dinner' to refer to the midday meal, which the upper-classed call 'lunch,' you are definitely working-class. Calling your evening meal 'tea' is also a working-class indicator. The upper-classes call this meal 'dinner' or 'supper'. Technically a dinner is a somewhat grander meal. If you are invited to 'supper' this is likely to be an informal family meal. The upper and upper-middle classes use the term 'supper' more than the middle-middle and the lower-middles. 'Tea' for the higher classes is taken around four o'clock and consists of tea and cakes or scones, pronounced with a short 'o' and perhaps little sandwiches ala Enid Blyton. The lower-classes call this 'afternoon tea'. If you don't know and haven't still placed your friends who have invited you to dinner, ask the time. It might mean a meal in the afternoon or the evening. Similarly, an invitation to tea will require you to check. The answer will help you place your hosts on the social scale.

5. Settee

Another way to find out where your hosts fit on the social scale it to ask them what they call their furniture. If an upholstered seat for two or more people is called a 'settee' or a 'couch' they are no higher than middle-middle. If it is a 'sofa', they are upper-middle or upper class. If for example the item in question is part of a brand-new matching three-piece suite, which also matches the curtains, its owners are likely to call it a 'settee'.

6. Lounge

Similarly, the room that houses the settee/sofa are also named differently. Settees live in 'lounges' or 'living rooms', sofas in 'sitting-rooms' or the more grand 'drawing room'. The 'correct' term used to be 'withdrawing room' but many upper-middles and uppers feel it is a bit silly to call a small room in an ordinary terraced house the 'drawing room' so 'sitting room' has become acceptable.

7. Sweet

Like 'dinner' the upper-middle and upper classes insist that the sweet course at the end of the meal is called the 'pudding'. It is never the 'sweet', or 'afters', or 'dessert', all of which are lower class. Calling it a 'sweet' at the end of a meal will get your immediately classified as middle-middle or lower, 'afters' will also get you demoted. Calling it a 'dessert' will confuse many upper classes as well because traditionally a 'dessert' means a selection of fresh fruit, served right at the end of a 'dinner', after the 'pudding', and eaten with a knife and fork.

Other terms that register on the class sensitivity radar are

Smart

If you want to start talking 'posh' you will have to stop using the word 'posh' and start using the word 'smart'. In upper-middle and upper-class circles, 'posh' can only be used ironically, in a jokey tone of voice to show that you know it is a low-class word.

Common

The opposite of 'smart' is what everyone from the middle-middle upwards calls 'common', another way of saying 'working-class'. The upper classes don't really have a problem calling people working-class, but the middle-classes find using the word class rather difficult.

Mummy and Daddy

Smart children, no matter their age call their parents Mummy and Daddy. Common children refer to their parents as 'my Mum' and 'my Dad' or 'me Mam' or 'me Dad' while smart children refer 'my mother' and 'my father'. It isn't always infallible, but if the children are over the age of 10 and still calling their parents Mummy and Daddy as opposed to Mum and Dad it is a fairly reliable higher-class indicator.

Bag, scent, racing

Mummies carry 'bags' while Mums carry 'handbags'. Similarly, Mummies wear 'scent' while Mums wear 'perfume'. Smart Daddies go 'racing' while common Dads go 'horse-racing'.

A party, food and drink, helpings and first course

Working-class or common parents go to a 'do'; middle-middles go to a 'function'; and the upper-classes go to 'a party'. Smart people have 'food and drink' at their parties, while the lower and middle-middles eat their food in 'portions'. Upper-middles and above have 'helpings'. Common people have a 'starter', smart people have a 'first course'.

House and terraces

Lower and middle-middles talk about their 'home' or 'property', upper-middles and above say 'house'. Common people have 'patios' in their home, while the smart people have 'terraces' in their houses. Working-class people say 'indoors' when they mean 'at home'.

* I must admit that one of the things that I've personally noticed that differentiates the classes in my part of the country is profanity. How often people curse, and what curses they use really seems to indicate their background. So far, and this is purely my observation, the more Anglo-Saxon the curse, the lower the class. The middle-classes don't seem to use profanity as much, or if they do, it is a milder variety. Personally I don't know enough of the upper echelons to make a value judgement, so I shall leave them alone.

I do hope you enjoyed this brief discussion about the different words and how they reflect the class divide in Britain. Please let me know if you've noticed other major 'flashing lights' that stand out and signpost the class of people. Also do let me know if you've got similar markers to differentiate class in your own part of the world. I would be very interested in finding out more.

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Comments 16 comments

2patricias profile image

2patricias 5 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

Very well observed! I am very interested in how first names can tell you so much about age, parental asperation

and social class.

This is an interesting hub.


home witch profile image

home witch 5 years ago from Manchester Author

Thank you. Indeed. I had always thought that class was something people our age didn't really care about until I hit my late twenties and mid thirties and then it started making more sense - especially when considering the choices we made and how we conducted our lives. It is such an odd thing to still be around after so many centuries.


attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 5 years ago from Australia

Hi hw, I escaped the class system in 1977 when i came to Australia. Being brought up in a council house i was very much working class and proud of it of course. My dad, um, father, um papa fought in the second world war, became a coach driver, then manager. So i suppose he became middle class. My mother was quite intelligent but succumbed to mental illness and therefore didn't have the opportunity to flourish. She was the mother of four kids too, so was too busy to use her intelligence in other ways. I worked in local factories, then became a vehicle body builder. Moved to Oz and am now a self employed bricklayer. My income would be middle class, even though i look skint most of the time. Before i came to Oz i got my first car when i was 23. Every time I to spoke to someone new in the local pub they would ask me what sort of car i had, followed by what year. After a while i realised that they were assessing what rung of the social ladder i belonged on. It didn't seem to matter whether i owned the car, or if i were leasing it. It's type and year were the defining factors. I've covered this little scenario in one of my hubs. In Australia there is about 10% class divide. You can, sorry, one can, go to a BBQ where the managing director of a company will be wearing an apron cooking sausages for the sweeper up. (Or me) We live about five miles north of Melbourne's CBD in a multicultural suburb called Thornbury. There is a suburb about two miles away which is more Anglo and is noticeably more snooty. Only 10% of course. Your hub was very interesting and i shall read more of your work once i've finished ironing my cloth cap and when i find a bit more time. Cheers from sunny Melbourne.


home witch profile image

home witch 5 years ago from Manchester Author

Hello attemptedhumour.

Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I love hearing someone say that they are working class and proud of it. I don't really see the point of being ashamed of one's roots. My husband's great grandparents were utterly working class. Dad, his dad, is tracing the family roots and we've so far found someone who died in the work-house after being in service all their lives, many others in service and many in trade. But grandpa was brilliant and worked his way into solid middle-class society, dad went to Imperial College and got his PhD and worked in a very middle-class occupation. I suppose my husband and I are more of the upper-middles now. Not in income, mind you, but because he works for university in a very upper-middle type job and I'm working on my PhD, which will, I suppose, if the economy improves at some point give me a job that keeps me in the upper-middle income bracket.

That said, my family for as long as they can remember have been upper-middle or above, and before my father [I called him daddy until his death] lost all of his family land [he was the gentleman who just couldn't work and never did and was hopeless at managing money, investing or anything of that milieu] that was our place in society. My mother [mummy] has never had to work. She's lived off his and her inheritance.

Class is interesting only in that it allows one to examine people and understand their thinking from a sociological perspective.

Happy New Year.


attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 5 years ago from Australia

I thought you would be pretty classy. I'm a well off scruffy git, so which rung do I belong on?


home witch profile image

home witch 5 years ago from Manchester Author

Hello old chap ;)

No idea where you belong. I guess placing you would depend entirely on the social context of Oz, which I have never lived in and so no nothing about. A bricklayer would seem to be working class, but since you're self-employed, that could easily push you into solid lower-middle to middle-middle territory. I guess a lot depends on how you feel and where your values are. And seriously, I don't know about the classy statement. I'm sure I've been demoted for living in the North of England. My mother is constantly worried about my lifestyle. She keeps says she wishes she had more money to help make my life better :) I do know that most of my aunts and cousins look down on me, that's for sure. When my husband first came to meet the extended family and they found out he lived in Manchester and studied at UMIST there were a lot of raised eyebrows. Most of my cousins studied at Cambridge and Imperial. In actual fact, none of my cousins have ever visited me in Manchester to this day, and I've lived here now since Aug 2005. Talk about snobbery :)


Deni Edwards profile image

Deni Edwards 5 years ago from california

Great hub!

I had a neighbor from Britain for a long time. She often spoke of the classes and how to identify them, and what class she had been in, but she didn't mention word choice. According to the words she commonly used and reading this hub, my neighbor was being honest when she told me what class she was considered to be in.

Thanks for the interesting hub.


home witch profile image

home witch 5 years ago from Manchester Author

Dear Deni,

I'm glad you found the hub interesting.

The thing is that really, today in Britain, there's nothing to be ashamed of regarding class. It is only people with insecurities who don't want to admit to what they are or where they come from.


Emma 5 years ago

"Not in income, mind you, but because he works for university in a very upper-middle type job and I'm working on my PhD, which will, I suppose, if the economy improves at some point give me a job that keeps me in the upper-middle income bracket."

Strictly speaking, that's very much middle-middle class, not upper-middle class.

But I why obsession with class? Most people have unshackled themselves from such trite labels. Just aspire to be what you want to be and not what your family or society thinks you should be.


home witch profile image

home witch 5 years ago from Manchester Author

True, totally. But again, when looking within the university system, I've come to realise that the subject also affects the class status in some way. It is odd that, you would think that academia in general would have a fairly similar class basis. But I'm doing my PhD in literature, which being a non-commercial type subject pushes it up somewhat. I really find class a really interesting label, but a label with so much contentious history that is begs further study. To obsess about it, to let it rule your life, of course, it to be an idiot and a slave to a system that is restrictive. :)


Sam1 5 years ago

I am Irish, class system here is strange because with the Celtic tiger (enormous economic growth from mid 90s to late 00s) everyone was at least middle class it seemed. Then it emerged it wasn't actual wealth people had but just borrowed money. Allot of White Collared people here now live in Mansions which they risk loosing and are on the "bread line" (which I guess is a common term - suiting their current income). In my case I can't decided what class I am in. My dad is self employed juggling a lot of working class type mini enterprises like taxiing by himself, once set up and ran a shop, once resold used parts for stuff. It sounds very common but we have to pay higher rate of Tax, it had dipped to about £30k or 40k since the recession but in the good years he made about £50,000 a year. My mom was a drop out from school but came from upper-middleclass roots. Her parents very posh yet down to earth, she grew up in a victorian townhouse and had a small staff (who they were never allowed to call "staff" or "the help" and the maid was always called Mrs___ never "the maid") both of her parents ran a small business that had a high turnover and her grandparents ran a farm on good land which profit them a lot. She did refer to her parents as Mummy or Daddy while my farther who came from a poorer yet sustainable farming background used terms more fitting to eastenders "old man/lady". My family own ever square meter of land they have and not a cent to the bank which includes 2 medium size homes some small plots of land in key areas. My mother has brought us up to speak despite her dropping out of education. I am wondering what class are we? Linguistics: parents say "excuse me", Both say "Toilet" though mom says loo (her mother "- lavatory") and we all say bathroom, both say "napkin" or "kitchen roll" if it just kitchen roll, dad family have dinner just after noon but supper in the evening (which is like a light meal), moms family have "tea" in the evening but supper if it close to bedtime, the thing im lying on now is a couch if we are speaking amongst our selfs but seems to switch the term to Sofa when we have a guest. This room is a "sitting room", but dad side of family call it "the front room". We don't have a dining room but nearly everyone on my mother side does (not mentioned above but it is a class thing I think) but we have a large kitchen it seems for middle class families having a nice and big kitchen is what is important (noted in lost homes of the "celtic tiger") in either my "posher" granny would had a sweet, we would have dessert (which my dads mother mispronounces) though with my mom and me a dessert type meal sometimes ate that is fruit and cream.

My mother and farther simply say expensive shop,restaurants (they despise opulence which is one of reason we aren't in debt) though they do like like to eat out in "good" restaurants and maybe buy "good" clothes. "posh people" are called "posh" or "smart" depending on circumstances pretentious people are called "hob knobs". My parents both have wealthy friends and always encourage that rich doesn't always equate to bitch. same that mim wage doesn't = common. To them common behavior is rudeness, badly spoken or roughly dressed, and "loud and brassy" and money is not what makes one is smart or common e.g Jordan is very common despite been very rich. My mom carries a handbag and when she does occasionally get a "good" one she might say "I got a new bag", she wears Perfume (always "Good" but mostly duty-free). Dad goes "racing" and mom seem to have ride horses when she was younger as did my grandparents (another class thing you forgot) My parents go to Parties or functions, or more causally a "thing". Where they have "food and drink" in "courses". My dad has a starter, but once I tell my mom "First Course" is more correct she probably use that from now on. They stay in and go out, might entertain in the patio but seems might prefer to eat-outside in terrace when abroad. Anyway that briefing of my family. I think we are middle class both me and my sister are currently in college, but just curious because I know a marxist kinda guy who got mad one day because after he said "we working class are been screwed by government, you should join me in a protest" and I replied "well things are good for us at the moment, and Id say we are more middle-class" he stopped me and replied "what, your not middle class your dad is a taxi driver/everything else" I feel ashamed now though I didn't let it go because my upper-middle class grandparents where all for class mixing encouraging their kids to play with mrs_____ children.


home witch profile image

home witch 5 years ago from Manchester Author

Hello Sam1,

Thank you for your very interesting post. I guess, if I had to define it, I would call you middle-class. To me it seems obvious that you aren't working-class, though your dad's roots are.

I only used these 7 terms described above because they are the main ones. Yes, you're right, there are more, like the riding horses, going to dance classes [usually ballet] and so on.

I must admit that class markers in general are fluid things, especially with mass-communication and people mixing in society that much more freely now. Class is not something to be ashamed off, we are how we are, it is interesting to observe, to notice how something like this influences our choices and behaviour, but it is not meant to divide society or stop us playing freely and living together with someone from a different class.

My husband's family come from working-class roots. His great-grand-dad was a barrow man, who went around looking for building work with his wheel barrow in London. Grandpa worked hard and studied and eventually became a white-collar worker. Dad, has a PhD and is very middle-middle I would say. My husband and I are more upper-middle, given my more upper-middle roots.

I've always called my parents mummy and daddy. My mummy has a bag, so do I. We have breakfast, lunch and dinner at home; sometimes, especially on weekends when I can be bothered, I make cake, scones or something of that nature and we have tea. I call our sitting-room the front-room on most occasions because we live in a small Victorian End-Terrace in Manchester while I complete my PhD. We use napkins when we eat, cloth ones on most occasions, but paper ones when we have guests of large numbers. I use nice scent, even if it isn't very expensive and just off the Oriflame catalogue.

So I don't know, really, where I'm going with this post. Just to say, thank you for your really cool and informative post. Glad you liked reading my hub.


Kirsty jones 5 years ago

Hi,

I'm currently writing my dissertation for the Interior Design degree i'm studying and i have set the question, "How has the notion of class evolved within interior design since the Victorian period?"

I found this page very interesting and find it's always good to have other people's views.

Do you have any thoughts on this question? And if so what? And also, have you come across any texts, essays, studies or books that may be of interest to me?

I have found finding information on the class system in the UK fairly easy, but to find it relating to the home is somewhat more difficult. I have already written 4000 words but want to go into a lot more depth.

I found the Kate Ford book extremely useful and found the humour she used very entertaining!


home witch profile image

home witch 5 years ago from Manchester Author

Hello,

Yes, Kate Fox's book, 'Watching the English' is brilliant. Do also look at Ferdinand Mount's book 'Mind the Gap'. Its a pun on what's said on the London tubes but also about the gap between the classes.

I can't think of other book off the top of my head though. But there's plenty that looks that that kind of thing. Good luck.


DAZZ 4 years ago

Honestly? Don't agree, to put it nicely. I know people who say "dinner" or "tea" depending on the day and people who say "napkin" from all walks of life. I see in your comment that you said that these markers are fluid so I guess it's all good, probably should have mentioned that in the original piece. A lot of this stuff is more about education than class, or just due to personal psychological states I guess you could say. For example I don't say "dinner" for lunch or "tea" for dinner because it's just too confusing to use multiple words to mean different things, and I usually talk to people in educational spheres differently than I talk to most other people, because I know that it's important to talk properly to be taken seriously in those circles.

Honestly, I feel that the old "working class", "middle class" and "upper class" classifications aren't relevant any more, which is why I just think of people as more poor or more rich than others. I've always known Builders with more money than my parents (my dad has worked a lot of jobs but is a qualified accountant and during my childhood mostly worked office jobs for the council, Inland Revenue etc, my mum graduated as a doctor in about 2005), and it's no secret that plumbers are highly paid these days in Britain, so certainly manual labour does not mean working class, but it seems like most claim that that is what divides people along class lines.

I'm only 18 so got a lot to learn, but I think I have a decent grasp of the UK generally, since I've lived in Kings Lynn, Merseyside and Nottingham, my mum grew up in poor areas of Nottingham (I'll just throw in "including a council estate" since that seems to be an easy way to make people believe that you're not exaggerating), and half of her family still lives there. Late in my teenage years I became friends with some people in school who clearly had money (driving newish or new Audis, BMWs, Range Rovers etc in some cases). I know people and have known people from a range of financial, racial (I'm British-Pakistani btw, and don't read into what I call myself too much since sometimes I say British-Asian, sometimes I say I'm of Pakistani descent, sometimes Indian since Pakistanis and India are 2 diverse countries which overlap almost completely ethnically) and occupational backgrounds.

Not sure if this is a coherent post since the box I'm typing in only shows 6 lines at a time.


home witch profile image

home witch 4 years ago from Manchester Author

Dear Dazz,

It was lovely reading your comment. I agree with a lot that you had to say, but I must point out that class is not the same as money. Not at all. A lot of people from the upper classes are today quite poor because of the way inheritance tax has broken up family estates and things but they still remain in the upper classes. Their attitudes and expectations are still of the upper classes, their approach to education, to dress and to acceptable behaviour is still of their class.

Thus, at least in my view class is about a complex number of things, education, lifestyle choices, behaviours and attitudes that are learned at home and of course ideology. If you're interested you should read some work on a concept called Cultural Captial which is a concept of learned behaviour that is acquired either by birth or education, as opposed to economic capital which is purely based on monetary transactions.

Pierre Bourdieu theorises that it is the most important tool used to differentiate the classes. And thus, the words and language we use is a cultural captial marker. But it is only one of many.

As for your mixed heritage and roots. I hear you. Funnily enough my in-laws now live in Wollaton in Nottingham which I would say is a very middle-class area of Nottingham, but their roots are in Southern London. The two great wars went a long way in helping people move through the classes, grandpa for example was an officer in the second world war, was based in Germany during the end-of-war years doing administration following the fall of Hitler. So... I think that helped him once the war was over to easily move up the class-structure.

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